Begetting the first truly happy ending to ever follow the “Happy Birthday” song, a judge has awarded $4.62 million in fees to the attorneys who worked to pry that dark invocation of well-wishes from copyright hell and loose it into the public domain, where it can now be incanted with impunity at those creeping ever closer to death. In his somewhat-flirtatious ruling, the judge deemed the hefty payment was appropriate due to the lawyers’ “impressive skill and effort” and the suit’s “unusually positive results,” with these tireless litigators saving us all from any more awkward lyrical substitutions by our fictional characters, and finally freeing this killer tune to be sung by anybody who’s looking to celebrate another year gone by rocking the fuck out.
As we’ve reported since at least three unlicensed performances of “Happy Birthday” ago, the effort to liberate the song from Warner/Chappell Music has been an arduous and, as U.S. District Judge George King noted, “highly complex” one, requiring untangling nearly a century’s worth of murky copyright claims over the simple little ditty. Those claims finally fell apart last year when King determined there was no concrete proof that Mildred and Patty Hill were, as long believed and joked about, the song’s original authors—or if they were, that they’d ever properly copyrighted their most famous work. King was convinced by the labors of the plaintiffs’ counsel, who’d bravely risked library-lung to dig up examples of “Happy Birthday” in moldering 1920s songbooks that predated the Hills’ 1935 claim, and generally poked holes in various, poorly documented agreements that may as well have been made via hat-tips and exchanges of bathtub gin.
For those efforts, the five attorneys who took on that task—on a contingency-fee basis, no less—will now receive approximately one-third of Warner’s $14 million settlement, a number King arrived at by taking the $3.85 million owed for hours billed (the highest of which was 2,193 hours, at the rate $640 an hour), adding a “1.2 multiplier,” then kicking in some gushing flattery. But that’s just boring math and exciting courthouse drama. The important part of this feel-good story is that now whenever someone sings “Happy Birthday,” right before you blow out the candles, you can picture a group of lawyers receiving millions of dollars, and smile as you realize you have nothing left to wish for.